What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a type of pulmonary fibrosis – a serious, chronic occupational lung disease caused by breathing in silica dust. There is currently no cure for silicosis.

Crystalline silica is a common mineral that is found in sand, quartz and many other types of natural rock. It has also been used to make engineered or manufactured stone, and other construction materials. Engineered stone – often used for benchtops in kitchens and bathrooms – contains more silica than natural stone.

When products that contain crystalline silica are crushed, cut, drilled, polished or sawed – they generate tiny dust particles that when inhaled can lodge deep inside the lungs, damaging and scarring the lungs and making it difficult to breathe.

Silicosis mainly affects workers without appropriate protective equipment, exposed to silica dust in jobs such as construction and mining, as well as with engineered stone. With a very high content of silica and the formation of dust, engineered stone is seeing one in four workers facing a silica-related disease.

Silicosis can be prevented by avoiding ongoing exposure to silica dust, wearing protective equipment, wetting down tools and materials to suppress dust (i.e., not dry cutting) and using tools with dust-collecting attachments.

Crystaline Silica regulations

All employers must follow Australian workplace health and safety procedures and you can find the regulations relating to Crystaline Silica

Read more

From July 2024, engineered stone will be banned in most parts of Australia due to the risk to Australian workers of developing silicosis.

How are workers exposed to Respirable Crystalline Silica?

Crystalline silica is extremely dangerous when dust is generated from various work activities and this dust is inhaled. Safe Work Australia identifies the following high-risk work practices:

  • using power tools to cut, grind or polish natural and engineered stone countertops
  • excavation, earth moving and drilling plant operations
  • clay and stone processing machine operations
  • paving and surfacing
  • mining, quarrying and mineral ore treating processes
  • road construction and tunnelling
  • construction labouring and demolition
  • brick, concrete or stone cutting; especially using dry methods
  • abrasive blasting (blasting agent must not contain greater than 1 per cent of crystalline silica)
  • foundry casting
  • angle grinding, jack hammering and chiselling of concrete or masonry
  • hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells
  • pottery making
  • crushing, loading, hauling and dumping of rock, and
  • clean-up activities such as sweeping.

What are the types of silicosis?

There are three types of silicosis based on the level of exposure to respirable crystalline silica:

  • Acute silicosis — develops within weeks or months of exposure to very high levels of silica dust.
  • Accelerated silicosis — due to exposure to large amounts of silica dust for less than 10 years.
  • Chronic silicosis — due to exposure to low levels of silica dust for more than 10 years.

What other types of disease can exposure to silica dust cause?

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Scleroderma and other autoimmune conditions
  • An increased risk of infections such as tuberculosis and fungal diseases

What are the symptoms of silicosis?

In the early stages of silicosis, there may be no symptoms. It is important to visit your doctor if you think you have been exposed to silica dust. Some of the common symptoms that develop are:

  • shortness of breath
  • chronic or persistent cough
  • weakness and tiredness
  • chest pain
  • weight loss

Unfortunately, symptoms will slowly get worse – even if you are no longer exposed to silica dust. 

What do I do if I have been exposed?

Occupational health monitoring should be available if you are exposed to silica dust at work. This is a legal requirement under Australian work health and safety legislation and involves a certified doctor providing periodic check-ups. This is very important to diagnose workers with silicosis who may have no symptoms and ensuring efficient management. During these periodic checks, should symptoms present, then you should be referred to a respiratory physician.

If you are not participating in a workplace health monitoring program, then the first step is to visit your doctor and discuss your occupational history.

How is silicosis diagnosed?

It is important to let your doctor know whether you think you have been exposed to silica dust and list any symptoms. The doctor may recommend seeing a respiratory physician and require you to do further tests such as:

  • chest x-ray
  • CT scan of your chest
  • lung function testing
  • blood tests
  • 6-minute walk exercise test
  • bronchoscopy and/or biopsy

How is silicosis treated?

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for silicosis.
Your doctor might recommend treatments to help with your breathing, such as:

  • an inhaler
  • anti-fibrotic medication (medicine that may help reduce the rate of scarring in your lungs)
  • cough suppressants
  • oxygen therapy if you have a low-level of oxygen in your blood
  • lung lavage (a specialist procedure to wash out your lungs)
  • a lung transplant in severe cases.

To help you reduce complications and to improve your quality of life, there are some things you can do such as:

  • avoid further exposure to silica dust
  • stop smoking and/or vaping
  • eat well, stay active and start exercising
  • keep your vaccinations, such as your annual flu jab, up to date
  • Seek support (link to ADDRI silicosis support) to help you manage your wellbeing.


What is ADDRI doing?

At ADDRI our focus is on delivering patient centred care and advocacy. This includes offering assistance with education in a supportive and safe environment, along with dedication to research and providing evidence-based care.

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